By Dr. Debra Rezendes, HMT Resident in Marriage and Family Therapy
We are in uncharted territory together as our community braces to contain the impact of COVID-19.
As a parent, you have likely had to shape-shift into many forms this week—comforter, fear-slayer, information-gatherer, preparer, and more recently teacher. You have likely had to shield your child from the cacophony of news reports and fear-inducing discussions of COVID-19. I see you. I see all the ways that you are helping your child understand the myriad of changes happening in our community, and I come into this discussion today first and foremost as a parent walking alongside you in this.
As I sit here reflecting on the week, my mind keeps remembering a colleague who I worked with years ago. With unwavering confidence and conviction, she would talk to military spouses about embracing their inner Gumby. If you aren’t familiar, Gumby was a green cartoon character whose superpower was getting out of unfortunate events using his flexibility. I’ve been thinking about my inner Gumby and my family’s inner Gumby the last few days, and the ways that I can help families do the same. What follows below is a list of guideposts to help support our children’s emotions throughout the coming weeks.
Acknowledge Difficult Emotions but Don’t Live There. It is okay to be scared.
It is okay to be feel unsettled. It is okay to be overwhelmed. The collective emotional current of our community is a bit more on-edge, and this emotional current can have an impact on us and our children. Our nervous systems have been bombarded with information, changes, and emotions this past week. To embrace our inner Gumby, we need to acknowledge how we are feeling and identify what we need to feel supported and comforted during this time, so we have the emotional space to help hold our children’s emotions.
Try this: Make a list of what you are feeling using “I am ___________ because ____________.” After you have made your list, go back to each emotion, and thank the emotion for what it is showing you.
Here is an example: I am scared because I don’t know what will happen in our community in the next two weeks. Thank you fear for showing me that I need to have a sense of control and that I need to focus on the things I can control.
Be Knowledgeable but Don’t Overindulge. Knowledge can be extremely helpful to understand what is happening and how we can protect ourselves.
The CDC has been diligent in putting out information on what individuals can do to protect themselves and factors that put individuals at higher risk for complications. This information is both helpful and important for all of us to know. If you or a loved one is at higher risk for complications, talk with your primary care physician to discuss a plan for keeping you and your family healthy.
Yet, too much knowledge can leave us feeling hopeless and helpless. Avoid watching the news and scrolling through online news articles about COVID-19, especially around children. Children can be especially sensitive to the information shared, and children’s anxieties can rise when they hear that adults are fearful of what is going on.
Be Honest and Emphasize What Can be Controlled. How do I talk to my child about COVID-19 and the changes happening in our community?
Be honest with your children and only share age-appropriate information. Keep your answers short and factual and always emphasize what is being done to keep you and your family safe. Check in with your child about what he or she already knows about COVID-19 and allow him or her to ask questions. Children are hearing information from many sources and a good bit of the information being shared is not completely accurate (and leading to some big feelings). You may also notice feelings around being out of school, missing playdates and parties, and feelings of anger, anxiety or sadness in your child’s play. If you see this, this type of play is your child’s way of making sense of what is happening and their emotions. Your child may even invite you into his or her play, which is a great way for you to help your child process through their feelings in a fun and safe way.
There are things that we can all do to lower the risk of becoming infected. It is helpful to remind children what can be done to keep ourselves healthy. Handwashing, social distancing, not touching our face, eating healthy, and stay home if someone in our family feels unwell are some helpful strategies to adopt right now. Use this as an opportunity to teach your child about germs. You can use the link below to access a fun science experiment to help children understand the value of handwashing.
Resource: Make Germs Scatter
Be Community-Minded and Look for the Helpers. We are all in this together.
The steps being taken in our community is an effort to protect our loved ones and community members who would have the greatest complications with this virus. In times of difficulty, I am always reminded of the Mister Rogers quote, “look for the helpers.” If we look close enough, we can find the people who are making a difference, who are looking out for those in need, and who reflect kindness and compassion.
Talk about these stories with your children and think of ways that you and your children can continue to shine this light into our community. Our community is resilient, and we will get through this.
I wanted to end with one last resource that I have found particularly helpful among the information that dedicated and caring professionals have taken the time to curate. Patty Wipfler, from Hand in Hand Parenting, has a warm and supportive message for parents in the trenches of supporting their children and their family during this time. You can access her message here.
Debra has over ten years of community and clinical work with individuals, children, parents, and families and has been published in the Journal of Happiness Studies and Autism Research and Treatment. She received her doctorate in Marriage and Family Therapy from Eastern University and has gained specialized, intensive training in emotionally focused therapy (EFT) and Theraplay. She also has skills in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), strengths-based therapies, self-compassion training, attachment-based therapies, play therapy, and solution-focused therapy.
Dr. Debra Rezendes is a Resident in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working towards licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist in Virginia. She works under the supervision of Marianne S. Coad, MAMFC, LMFT, LPC-S. In the event that clients have any questions or concerns about Debra’s work, her supervisor can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, (703) 657-9721, or 10379-B Democracy Lane, Fairfax, VA 22030.